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Since Rae Morris signed a recording contract on her 18th birthday, she has been teasing her loyal, yet ever-growing fanbase with her music, or so it seems, with each of her six EPs offering a tiny glimpse of what to expect from her debut album. It’s almost as if Atlantic Records knew they had something special, yet didn’t want to unleash it to the world until she had matured. Now aged 21, Rae Morris has released ‘Unguarded’, and it’s clear to see why she has been hotly tipped as one of the female artists to watch in 2015.
With production of the album coming from Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Charli XCX), Jim Eliot (Kylie Minogue, Ellie Goulding) and Fryars (Lily Allen), ‘Unguarded’ tackles the subject of life-changing, character-building relationships and the highs and the lows that come as a result. Take ‘Skin’ for example. The album opener details the guilt of continuing a toxic love affair; a powerful introduction told through a rare integrity that emanates from the lofty chorus and sophisticated melody. Likewise, ‘Closer’, taken from the EP of the same name, focuses on Rae’s distance from her family and how that has made her more appreciative of her own identity as a result.
Female singer/songwriters are ten a penny in the music industry at the moment. However, Rae Morris stands out in this market thanks to an elegance in her vocals and a genuine honesty in her lyrics, which complements the pop flair with an almost perfection. This is particularly evident on ‘Love Again’, a graceful track about getting back on the horse, and the up-beat electro-pop single ‘Under the Shadows’. The record also features a number of Rae Morris’ previous singles, including the incredibly moving piano-led ballad ‘Don’t Go’, the highly entrancing ‘Cold’ (ft. Fryars) and the tantalising ‘Do You Even Know?’, a track she wrote in her shed in Blackpool.
‘Unguarded’ is a coming-of-age album for Rae Morris, as she makes the leap up from a teenager writing songs in her bedroom to a contemporary pop star on the verge of unprecedented success. Was it worth the wait? Without a doubt.
The debut album from Rae Morris, ‘Unguarded’, is released today on Atlantic Records. She begins a UK tour on Sunday in Liverpool; all the details are this way.
Whenever I’m listening to a new album for review, I generally try to steer clear of reading other reviewers’ opinions, at least until my own review is officially in the books. I’ve had particular difficulty this week avoiding the barrage of media attention for Belle and Sebastian’s new LP ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’. Music critics and diehard fans alike have been eagerly awaiting this release since it was announced late last year, especially now that their attention has turned from end-of-year charts to the business of making predictions for 2015.
‘Girls in Peacetime Want To Dance’ is not only new music for the new year, it marks a slightly new musical direction for Belle and Sebastian as well. As implied by its title, this set of songs unabashedly experiments with dance pop, which comes as a bit of a surprise from the Scottish indie sextet, who have previously been known for their sunny and cerebral brand of twee. In fact, I was astonished to find myself delightedly dancing along to the album’s first single ‘The Party Line’ when I heard it played on Steve Lamacq’s BBC 6music programme last week.
Aside from being a gleefully giddy bit of pop pleasure, the track is a strong statement of the band’s intent for this, their ninth studio album. Its trippy, heavily synthesized disco beat, deep pulsing bass and catchy vocal hook, “jump to the beat of a party line / there is nobody here but your body, dear”, put the radio-friendly dance vibe squarely at the forefront of the overall sound. (Watch the video for ‘The Party Line’ in our previous Video of the Moment feature.)
This is not to suggest, however, that frontman and main songwriter Stuart Murdoch has gone soft on his normally erudite lyrical style. Album opener ‘Nobody’s Empire’ is a deeply introspective look at Murdoch’s own introversion, examining the disconnect between himself and the world around him. But the song’s probing lyrics, “we are out of practice, we’re out of sight / on the edge of nobody’s empire / and if we live by books and we live by hope / does that make us targets for gunfire?” are disguised by a sprightly instrumental arrangement and uplifting gospel choir backing vocals that convey more something more akin to optimism than self-doubt.
‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ is a glittery disco ball of a track with slick synths and programmed percussion backing the lyrically astute vocal trade-off between Murdoch and Sarah Martin. Likewise, ‘Perfect Couples’ features a sensually serpentine guitar riff and an irresistible, almost tribal sounding dance beat behind a tersely cynical lyrical examination of the superficiality of modern relationships: “sexual tension at the fridge / he makes for the organic figs / from on her lips dangling a cig”.
Possibly the most intriguing track on ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’ is a different kind of dance tune entirely. ‘The Everlasting Muse’ shifts back and forth from a seductive Spanish dance rhythm to a heavy, more Eastern European march tempo. In contrast to the glossy, polished production of the disco numbers, this track has a more traditional dance feel, right down to the handclap rhythms and the hints of modal harmony.
Belle and Sebastian step away from the overarching dance theme in the album’s more characteristic indie pop moments, including the dreamy haze of recent single ‘The Cat With the Cream’ and the blissfully pastoral acoustic arrangement of ‘Ever Had a Little Faith?’. Final track ‘Today (This Army’s for Peace)’ closes the album in a similarly contemplative vein, with distantly echoing vocals and a meditative piano solo over a constant and soothing rhythm, delicately executed by drummer Richard Coburn.
‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’ is solid evidence that even as they approach the 20-year mark of their career as a band, Belle and Sebastian are willing to stretch the limits of their established musical style. At this point, anything they release would be likely to create a buzz of anticipation in the music media, but here they live up to the hype with an album of songs that are by turns pleasantly unexpected and comfortably familiar.
‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’, Belle and Sebastian‘s ninth studio album, is out now on Matador Records. Belle and Sebastian are scheduled to perform at a slew of festivals this year, including a high-profile slot at Coachella (Saturday 11 April) and Liverpool Sound City 2015, where they will be headlining Sunday night (24 May) with a full orchestra at the event’s new Bramley Moore Dock location (more information here).
It gets personal on ‘Chromatics’, Sam Genders’ second collection of poppy psych-folk. Genders’ back-story merits a quick recap: as a founder member of seminal folktronica act Tunng, Genders helped define the sound of a genre in the mid-to-late Noughties. After parting ways with Tunng and dabbling with teaching, Genders released 2012’s ‘Black Light’ under the Diagrams alias. Where that album discussed life from a distant, abstracted viewpoint (cf. the refrain of ‘Tall Buildings’: “hexagon, pentagon, triangle, square”), ‘Chromatics’ is a far more personal body of work, no doubt influenced by Genders’ recent move from London to the relatively more intimate setting of Sheffield.
The scene of intellectual pop is set by opener ‘Phantom Power’, an upbeat first-person confessional with a hooky topline and abstract lyrical musings such as “I’m just a primate”. ‘Gentle Morning Sun’ is that rare thing: a pop song written by and for thirtysomethings, documenting the tenuous acceptance of growing older, becoming a responsible adult and what it means for one’s relationships with others. And perhaps one’s sanity itself. “The world isn’t waiting for us anymore / not like when we were young” speaks of the emptiness of unfulfilled dreams, despite the presence of a loving wife and kids; the narrator’s troubled half-waking state comes to a cacophonous climax of church organ, digital synth noise and squalling guitar feedback. A brilliant treatment of a subject close to millions of people’s hearts, yet rarely dealt with in pop music.
The title track concludes the first movement with a delicate down-tempo combination of acoustic guitar arpeggios and synth bass reminiscent of Genders’ previous band. Because the song itself is so gentle, the cleverness of the production is more apparent. Every song is enhanced by subtle electronic motifs: squelchy square-wave synths, sampled found noises, moulded by oscillators and filters. Producer Leo Abrahams has a long and distinguished list of collaborators behind him (Wild Beasts, Jon Hopkins, Brett Anderson), and this is another classy piece of production.
‘You Can Talk to Me’ is as personal as songwriting gets. Its premise is simple – the musical equivalent of an arm around the shoulders – but the way Genders has with a simple, almost childlike, vocal delivery, gives it almost unlimited restorative power. For anyone adrift on a sea of melancholy, put this on. It’ll help. If you’re already feeling ok, you might even be moved to tears by this unparalleled display of the best of human nature. The world needs some of that right now.
And then, buried in the album at track seven, comes the record’s pièce de resistance. Combining the jumpy electro beats and strummed acoustic guitar of The Flaming Lips’ ‘Yoshimi’ (the crowd shouts of “Let’s go!” sound rather familiar too) with Pet Shop Boys’ towering synths, ‘Dirty Broken Bliss’ is a potentially chart-bothering electro-pop paean with an enormous chorus. Genders, however, can’t resist a touch of surreality in the lyrics – “suck my skull”, indeed.
‘Chromatics’ is a triumph. It showcases one man’s personal songwriting vision, exploring topics of love and pain through a prism of an abstracted folk sensibility. Abrahams’ producing is both groundbreaking and respectful of the material, moulding and filling out the bare pieces into mature arrangements. There are no gimmicks here, just thoughtful music for adults. A great release to kick off 2015.
Diagrams‘ new album ‘Chromatics’ is out this week on Full Time Hobby. Genders plays live tomorrow night at the Lexington in north London.
By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 13th January 2015 at 12:00 pm
I’ve followed Emma-Lee Moss’ career with great interest upon hearing the beautifully heartbreaking single ‘We Almost Had a Baby’ from her debut album. Emmy the Great’s ‘First Love’ was released a good 5 years ago now and while both it and her 2011 LP follow-up ‘Virtue’ were released on Moss’ own label Close Harbour Records, her forthcoming EP ‘S’ this month will be released on Simon Raymonde’s celebrated Bella Union label.
It’s unclear whether her addition to the Bella Union roster has resulted in a permanent change in direction, but what is evident in the EP’s first single ‘Swimming Pool’ is her experimentation beyond the usual singer/songwriter-y sound with which Moss has made her name under the Emmy the Great moniker. ‘Swimming Pool’ is a breathy, diaphanous work that skirts the line between a choral hymn and dream pop, described well in the press sheet as “replete with rippling keys and dream laden bass”. If there’s a guitar in here, it’s hidden very well. Tom Fleming of Wild Beasts also makes a surprising and welcome vocal guest appearance on the single, shadowing Moss’ voice on the chorus. The guitar does return in ‘Social Halo’ but like in ‘Swimming Pool’, there is a dreamy, floating feeling throughout the song. Despite its theme of awkwardness in social situations, the track also feels vaguely Christmassy with glittering chimes, as if to take some of the edge off the anxiety.
Moss says the songwriting on this EP reflects looking outward to the outside world versus her own internal musings that inspired her first two albums: “My previous recordings were a reflection of my internal world, but this is a record of me trying to engage with the outside. Over the course of travelling and touring for the last two years I inhabited many cities and landscapes.” ‘Solar Panels’ is the most obvious example of this shift, as Moss’ lyrics seem oddly wooden against the backdrop of booming synthesisers, speaking of “Japanese / companies are making energy / from the heat in California”. Sonically, it’s very jarring to hear such a synthesised sound from Emmy the Great. It’s like, what’s next? Is Calvin Harris going to jump out from behind the mirage?
Thankfully, closing track ‘Somerset (I Can’t Get Over)’ brings it all back to more familiar territory. The sweet, lilting quality of Moss’ vocals, full of wistful emotion yet with characteristic Emmy the Great restraint, is front and centre here, even if there are a lonely percussive beat (a spoon?) and purposefully dreamy effects effects on the guitar line. The desire to hear an acknowledgment from her lover that she won’t be forgotten rings forlorn and true. Although I’m not a huge fan of this change in direction, this one song makes me hopeful Moss hasn’t given up everything we knew and loved about Emmy the Great. Let’s see how 2015 pans out for her, shall we?
‘S’, the forthcoming EP from singer/songwriter Emmy the Great, will be released next Monday, on the 26th of January, on Bella Union. She’ll be touring the UK later this month. It was also just announced on 13 January that Emmy will be showcasing at SXSW 2015 in Austin in March.
Fandom is a weird thing. Most recently the world has been blighted by a plague of fangirls and boys, masquerading as Beliebers, Directoners and the 5SOS Family. Groups of people bombarding online platforms with inane drivel about these ‘bands’, followed by the occasional session of stalking. On the flipside of that, in a completely non-sinister way, Frank Turner has continued to inspire his own band of twenty-something fanatics who’ve lifted him to the heady heights of headlining Wembley and appearing at the 2012 London Olympics. It’s a completely different kind of fandom though, with just a hint of fanaticism. See, Frank Turner fans are less likely to have gelled hair stuck up like a half-pipe and are more likely to be wearing a Motorhead t-shirt, smoking a doob at a gig and telling you they don’t care about music until Kyuss reform and tour. But it’s this loyal cohort of Turnees (this is neither a thing, nor is it a word) who can be relied upon to get onboard with the ex-Million Dead frontman’s newest album, ‘The Third Three Years’.
I only say this, because as much fun as this record is, it’s just a glorified collection of acoustic covers, B-sides and live versions. It’s charming, there is no doubt. Hearing Turner emulate his heroes Bruce Springsteen on ‘Born to Run’, Freddie Mercury on ‘Somebody to Love’ and Paul McCartney on ‘Live and Let Die’ is a great bit of fun and will certainly pay off with his loyal following. But as a completely standalone album, it’s a little underwhelming, especially as it clocks in at well over an hour and it has some significant lull points. Which have you thinking, is this just a wee money spinner over the crimble period? But perhaps this is me just being a little bit too cynical.
On this record, Frank Turner does what he has been doing for the past decade, which is rewarding his loyal fanbase with a chest-load of gems and goodies. ‘Hits and Mrs’ is a delightfully Turner-esque song, where the Eton-educated frontman spins a yarn about feeling shit and then waking up with that special someone being there to make you feel good and give you cuddles. That’s a message we can all get onboard with. The final song on the album, a raucous live version of ‘Dan’s Song’ quite possibly encapsulates all that is good about the punk turned singer/songwriter. The folk sensibility, crossed with the kind of punk rock raucousness that reminds you of The Germs in their heyday. You’re instantly transported to the last time *you* went to a Turner gig (which, lucky for me, was at the place where he recorded the version of this song at the Engine Shed in Lincoln), and you instantly want to stand up tall and sing the final words of ‘The Ballad of Me and My Friends’.
Some of the original b-side tracks on this record stand out – in fact there’s a period on the album that feels like a full-on assault on Broken Britain: he blames the kids, their parents, the community leader, the media, politicians and just about everybody who lives on our ruddy rock. ‘Riot Song’ especially is a homage to the complete shitstorm that were the UK riots in 2011. Turner pretty much gives a run through of the entire hellish few nights: “last night the kids sent London alight / started out in Tottenham and the flames spread through the night / but they didn’t burn the banks down, and they didn’t fight the cops / they just burned down their own ends and robbed the shops”.
In hindsight, it’s easy to look back on this period and call on England’s community to rise up and help our fellow man. But at the time, let’s be honest – with kids causing absolute havoc on the streets and kicking anyone who moved funny, you can’t be lambasted for staying in your home and protecting your family – so on that side, I scorn at Turner’s cynicism. On the other side, I love the brutal honesty of how he’s explaining how there was no revolution, no real cause. Simply, “they just burned down their own ends and robbed the shops”. OK, the rhetoric in ‘Something of Freedom’, of pointing the finger at the yoofs is a bit tired, but some of the songwriting is absolute genius: “Yeah, you’re marching in matching Che Guevara t-shirts / it’s so damn conceited it’s starting to hurt / you’re born into freedom so you don’t know it’s worth / and you constantly speak of solutions / but you only repeat revolution”. It’s the silver-tongued Turner at his very, very best.
This is one for the fans. The people who love Frank Turner for his bare-faced wit, his endemic Britishness and his loyalty to the people who have brought him to the heady heights he is at now. So chuck that Motorhead t-shirt out of your sister’s Christmas stocking and grab a copy of ‘The Third Three Years’.
Actually, fuck it. Frank would want you to have both.
‘The Third Three Years’, a collection of b-sides, live cuts and rarities from Winchester singer/songwriter Frank Turner, is out now on Xtra Mile Recordings. Stream the piano version of ‘The Way I Tend to Be’ below.
Some things are better raw. A good steak at a French restaurant, par exemple – I believe the phrase is, walk the cow past a fire and cut a bit off. Sushi, being raw fish, is also of course best enjoyed raw. Music at its most raw is normally found during an artist’s infancy, when the band are too down on their arse to afford any frills and fancy production techniques. Or when they have a Foo Fighters-esque renaissance and decide to record everything on analogue in a garage.
Monterey are the former: a band starting out in every way. Even in their stock band photos, the three-piece look a bit awkward and a bit clumsy, as if you can hear their psyche telling them, “just try and look as normal as you can. Oh, make sure that bump in your jeans doesn’t look like you’ve got a rod-on too”. It’s almost as if you’ve asked a cartoon to ‘act casual’ and of course they’re going to either smoke a pipe or look as contrived as possible. But enough of those quasi-awkward situations.
Contrived is as far from where Monterey sits on the scale of genuineness. The lyrics are all brutally honest and relatable, yet without being patronising. From the onset of ‘Can’t Live Like This’, frontman Carter Henry paints a brilliant everyman picture as the band strives to hit all the right notes on their ‘Sailor’ EP. The four song long record is laden with clever changes of pace that demand your attention, and there are even a few choruses with hooks that like to get caught in your grey matter and won’t stop tugging. Ouch, sorry if you’re squeamish.
The licks on ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ are clever and the New Jersey trio manage to create a soaring soundscape that builds to an impressive crescendo. The title single has a nautical lick to it in the first 10 seconds and builds on to arguably the most anthemic chorus of the short EP, “remember all the times you said that you love me? How come now it’s hard to find the time”. The lyrics may be slightly clichéd, but the delivery of them for the final time smacks of a band who have certainly found their feet and a fair bit of promise on this record.
Certainly ones to watch, if not for hand-on-heart choral delivery, than for a propensity for awkward stock photography.
Monterey‘s new EP ‘Sailors’ is now available from their Bandcamp and iTunes.
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